In contrast to typical cyanobacteria, Prochlorococcus strains possess an intrinsic divinyl-chlorophyll (Chl) a/b-protein complex instead of phycobilisomes as the major light-harvesting system. These pigment-protein complexes are encoded by a variable number of pcb genes depending on the ecotype to which the Prochlorococcus strain belongs: low-light-adapted strains possess several pcb gene copies whereas only a single copy is present in high-light-adapted strains. In this study, the light-regulated expression of the seven pcb genes of Prochlorococcus marinus SS120 was examined. The pcbF gene was found to exhibit a high turnover and its mRNA could only be detected as a degraded product under all light conditions. Steady-state levels of transcripts originating from the six other pcb gene copies varied over several orders of magnitude but were not significantly differentially regulated by light intensity. Transcript levels of most pcb genes increased between 4.5 and 8.5 micromol quanta m(-2) s(-1), peaked at 45 micromol m(-2) s(-1) and decreased at the highest irradiance (72 micromol m(-2) s(-1)). A phylogenetic analysis of the Pcb proteins and other members of the six-helix Chl protein superfamily revealed that PcbC and PcbG make a separate cluster with regard to the other Pcbs from SS120. In contrast, Pcb sequences from four high-light-adapted Prochlorococcus sp. strains were found to cluster together and to be less variable than SS120 Pcbs. Thus, pcb genes likely evolved at a different rate in the two Prochlorococcus ecotypes. Their early multiplication and diversification is likely a key factor in the successful adaptation of some genotypes to very-low-light conditions.